US film noir stalks French theatres


June 18, 2010 Updated Apr 4, 2009 at 4:11 PM EDT

French director Daniel Colas has no special fondness for American plays and movies. But this season, he felt the time was right to bring a dash of film noir to the Parisian stage.

He pulled out a script that had been lying in his pile for 10 years -- a staged adaptation of James M. Cain's novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice." It is just one of the hot theatre tickets in Paris this spring to peer at the seamy side of American life in the 1930s and 40s.

"I'm not generally very keen on titles which have made a big splash at the cinema and then are put on stage," Colas told AFP. "But then someone proposed this project to me (again). The times had changed. I realised it had strong dramatic potential."

A recent survey of the top-selling modern plays in Paris by theatre tracking site Theatreonline.com showed five out of the top nine shows in early March were plays or adaptations of work by American writers.

"The Postman" came in third, behind Tennessee Williams' "Baby Doll" -- a similar Depression-era tale of sex and violence in the sweltering southern United States where a teenage bride, seduced by a sexy foreigner, tries to escape from her abusive husband.

"It seems that nowadays people are fed up of little kitchen-sink dramas... (or) mainstream traditional comedies which have had their day," said Colas, in his office perched above the upper balconies at the Theatre des Mathurins.

"So now what are we after? Something a bit more spectacular... a show that's about American history."

Jean-Pierre Han, a drama critic who edits the quarterly arts review Frictions, says French audiences feel familiar with plays covering the dark years of the Depression -- in the case of Williams' work, thanks largely to the well-known film versions.

"The feeling people have about American theatre is of a very gloomy, dark, violent theatre," he said.

Colas's staging of "The Postman" -- the story of a vagabond in remote southern California who seduces the wife of a diner owner with murderous consequences -- depicts a wild and lawless country.

Visually, his production recalls classic films: trilby hats, period suits; even gas pumps and an old-fashioned motorcar wheeled on stage. Colas admitted adding an element to Cain's story, borrowed from the 1981 film version -- a violent bout of table-top lovemaking, with French screen actor Olivier Sitruk in place of Jack Nicholson.

Benoit Lavigne says he did the same in "Baby Doll", playing to packed houses at Paris's Theatre de l'Atelier. After seeing Elia Kazan's 1956 film version, the 35-year-old director -- who admits to going to the cinema more often than the theatre -- said he added several elements from the screen version to the theatre script.

Lavigne chose the play because he was fascinated by the "deep south of the United States, the heat, the mugginess -- the racism and violence of that society.

"I find there is a resonance between that America and the America of today -- and even French society."

Across town at the MC93, a trendy state-subsidised theatre in the working class neighbourhood of Bobigny, director Georges Lavaudant's version of Williams' 1961 play "Night of the Iguana" sold out at its premiere this month.

It is another claustrophobic melodrama, about a Texas priest, defrocked and alcoholic, who takes refuge in the Mexican desert after sleeping with an underage girl.

"This kind of play hasn't been put on much in public theatres (in France) for the past 20 years or so," Lavaudant told AFP, referring to the dark, intense style of modern drama associated with American writers such as Williams. "All of a sudden there's a revival of it," he said.

"In Tennessee Williams you can find all the themes of life, desires of the flesh, religion," he added. "In European plays there is perhaps less of that -- or in a more intellectual way."

Lavaudant's show was a departure from the popular city-centre productions, however. The director said he refused to bow to expectations by imitating the classic film version, "despite the danger that posed for people who were expecting to rediscover the film."

While "The Postman" was staged in the realist setting of a period diner bar, Lavaudant evoked the Mexico of Williams' play by erecting surreal giant cactus leaves that dwarfed his actors.

For the director of "Baby Doll," meanwhile, the cinematic link was all part of the appeal. "There's a real passion for American films and theatre" here, said Lavigne. "It's a culture that has always fascinated the French."

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